Steep fall in cannabis offences points to silent relaxation of drugs policy! Or are the police too stoned to bother anymore?
The number of cannabis possession offences in England and Wales has plummeted since 2011 as forces divert shrinking budgets into tackling more serious crime and officers rein in stop and search. Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal offences recorded by English and Welsh police forces – including penalty notices, cautions, charges and summons – fell by almost a third from a peak of 145,400 in 2011-12 to 101,905 in 2014-15.
Crucially, the figures include all cannabis possession offences, not just those that led to arrests or prosecutions. The fall in offences cannot therefore be explained by police opting for quick cautions over lengthy prosecutions. What the figures reveal is a silent relaxation of drugs policy in the last five years – and will spark fresh debate about whether there is a case to decriminalise cannabis possession.
Only last week a cross-party group of MPs called for the liberalisation of cannabis laws during a Westminster Hall debate in parliament. The debate was called after a petition to legalise the production, sale and use of cannabis attracted more than 221,000 signatures.
The fall in offences cannot be explained by declining weed use. While illicit drug use has fallen markedly since the turn of the century, the most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that the level of cannabis use since 2010 had barely changed. In 2015 6.7% of adults aged 16 to 59 used the drug. In 2010 the figure was 6.5%. Instead senior police officials pinpointed shrinking budgets, shifting priorities and reduced use of stop and search as the main reasons for the decline. Of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, 42 provided full-year figures from 2009-10 to 2014-15, and 30 provided part-year data from 2009-10 to the latest quarter of 2015-16.
Supt Mark Harrison, Merseyside police lead for cannabis, said the fall in recorded offences was due to reduced use of stop and search. “Increased scrutiny of police stop-search practices has led to more efficient, effective and targeted stop-searches. Additionally, decreasing police officer numbers will continue to result in fewer stop-searches in the future,” he said.
Significant drops were recorded by England’s large urban police forces and smaller rural ones, and forces in Wales. London’s Metropolitan police, the biggest force in the country, recorded 40% fewer weed possession offences in 2014-15 than in 2009-10.
When contacted, however, a Metropolitan police spokesperson said there had been no change in policy towards drugs misuse.
In some regions, the police are openly discussing liberalising drug sanctions. In July, Durham’s police and crime commissioner said he would effectively decriminalise people who grew small amounts of cannabis, a move welcomed by those who argue that Britain’s current drug laws are failing.
Many experts said that “the future must see a debate about the decriminalisation of drugs, certainly of weed”. Prof David Nutt, the founder of Drug Science and a former chairman of the government’s advisory committee on the misuse of drugs, welcomed the shift in police thinking but said it was largely down to cost savings.
“The police had been spending half a billion pounds a year giving convictions for cannabis possession. Criminalising young people on this [scale] was a tremendous waste of money.” Nutt, who has joined a Liberal Democrat “expert panel” to establish how a legal market for weed could work in Britain said that it was not clear this government “would look at the evidence and act in terms of policy”.
He pointed out that a Treasury report, leaked last week, showed legalising cannabis could save £200m in court and police costs and raise hundreds of millions of pounds in tax each year. “It would be rational policy to allow access to medical cannabis when 250 million Americans have access,” he said. “But we don’t seem to be able to do even this.”
Kirstie Douse, head of legal services with Release, a drugs advice charity that supports law reform, said a combination of reduced use of stop and search – especially in London – and deprioritisation of weed possession by some police forces explained the fall in recorded offences.
“Release welcomes police recognition that possession of cannabis is a low-priority offence, despite the lack of political will to formally acknowledge this. The evidence shows that the use of criminal sanctions to deter drug use is ineffective.”